ATLANTA, Georgia – The Weelaunee Forest is one of the original homelands of the Mvskoke people. After the Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced the Mvskoke people to vacate their home, the forest was used for many different purposes over the course of the following century.
Currently, the forest is under threat of development by the City of Atlanta. Protests defending the forest have erupted across the country, including one in Atlanta during the week of March 6, where Mvskoke protesters sought to preserve the forest once inhabited by their ancestors.
The current development under construction in the forest is a police training complex, the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center. The $90 million dollar, 300-acre project is backed by the Atlanta Police Foundation and other large corporate patrons. Once completed, it is intended to be the largest police training facility in the United States.
Critics of the complex have dubbed it “Cop City” due to its mock city layout where law enforcement will train with firearms, tear gas, helicopters and explosive devices. Atlanta City officials claim the complex will improve policing within the community.
Another outside developer, Shadowbox Studios is also seeking to construct a large Hollywood-grade production soundstage.
The social movement seeking to prevent outsiders from developing the Weelaunee forest is Defend the Atlanta Forest (DTF). It is part of a larger movement seeking to halt development of the police complex called Stop Cop City.
Helvpe Ceremonial Ground Mekko Chebon Kernell was one of the key leaders involved with the DTF protests. He has been involved with the Atlanta community for several years advocating for Native Americans, specifically Mvskoke people. Kernell said his role is to educate others and start meaningful conversations about what is best for the community and Mvskoke people.
“Our need as Mvskoke people is to always come back to our understanding of how we live in relationship with this earth,” Kernell said. “Any type of proliferation of weapons is always going to have a profound impact on black, Indigenous and people of color all over the country.”
During an Atlanta Regional Commission meeting, Mvskoke Ceremonial leaders attempted to deliver a letter of eviction to Atlanta City Mayor Andre Dickens. The letter states:
“The contemporary Muscogee people are making the journey back to their homelands and hereby give notice to Mayor Andre Dickens, the Atlanta City Council, the Atlanta Police Department, the Atlanta Police Foundation, the DeKalb County Sheriff’s office, and so-called ‘Cop City’ that you must immediately vacate Mvskoke homelands and cease violence and policing of Indigenous and Black people in Mvskoke lands.”
Mayor Dickens in turn abruptly left the meeting, and refused to speak with Mvskoke Ceremonial leaders on the matter. They have still not released an official response on the letter of eviction.
The DTF social movement argues that the “Cop City” development will also have negative ecological impacts in the area. Atlanta is home to some of the country’s highest concentration of urban tree canopies.
Kernell’s approach to the issue is empathy. He said the problem is larger than any one individual.
“It’s done by realizing that we don’t hate people,” Kernell said. “We hate the mechanisms and institutions that have caused suffering around our world.”
Dozens of arrests have been made from the 2023 Stop Cop City protests. In January the protests turned deadly when a protester involved with DTF, Manuel Esteban Paez Terán was killed in a confrontation with Georgia law enforcement. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency in response to ongoing protests in Atlanta, mobilizing National Guard troops.
Although tensions between protesters and the City of Atlanta have escalated, Kernell believes the end goal of preserving the homelands once inhabited by his ancestors are worth fighting for.
“My hope is that we can begin a process of restoring that level of intimacy with this earth,” Kernell said. “I hope there is a homeland to come back to one day.”
Mvskoke Media reached out to the MCN for comment on the protests and the construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center. The tribe responded that they are not affiliated with these protesters, and they have no comment on the issue.
The Atlanta Public Safety Training Center is still in the early phases of development, despite the protests. To view the full eviction notice penned by Mvskoke Ceremonial leaders or to learn more about the movement, visit defendtheatlantaforest.org.